Every Friday night, from Texas to North Carolina, high school football fans are standing to say the Lord's Prayer. I won't be standing with them. But I know where they're coming from. My fellow Southerners have found yet another way to honor God, defy the United States Supreme Court, and thumb their noses at the ACLU. Those prayers mark a few fine moments of civil disobedience for a culture that's been mocked in every way and still--pig-headed and wrong-minded as it may be--feels pretty good about itself. People outside and some people inside the South think this is just another example of white, bigoted, Jesus-crazed Southerners running roughshod over the rights of minorities. That's understandable because Christian preachers and church folk are leading the effort, and they aren't real concerned about other religions. But many of the folks standing to pray, and ready to get into a fist fight over their right to do so, don't go to church much and think about God just about as often as the rest of the country does, which is to say, mainly when they're in some bad trouble. They don't have anything against any other religion. They're standing to pray because it's proper. It is proper to acknowledge God in a traditional way when a crowd gets together. It is not proper, it is unseemly even, to raise a ruckus about that. They're not worried about affronting Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. Most of them probably don't even know any Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. They're worried
about affronting God, whom they do know--or oughta. At least that's how many people in the South feel about it. From their seat in the bleachers, it looks as if people who remember what's proper and what's not are the minority, and somebody needs to stand up for their rights. It's hard for anybody outside the South to understand how "being proper" is tied to Southern identity. It's such a quaint idea. But Southerners are generally conservative people. They like to keep to the old ways. The men in my family, most of whom wouldn't begin to know how to thump a Bible, don't drink in front of their children because their daddies and granddaddies didn't. They don't curse in front of women and will fall all over themselves opening doors for women for the same reason. They'll fight you for their right to do that, too. Those things define who they are in the face of a society that's changing too fast and championing a lot of ideas that look dangerous to them. An Alabama judge has become a folk hero for posting the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. I trust nobody thinks that's because people in Alabama obey the Ten Commandments any more faithfully than the rest of the country. Even Alabamans don't claim that. The judge is a hero because he's speaking out for people who feel voiceless. Images of Southern racism and riots and policeman beating up civil right marchers are branded into the national brain. They define Southern culture and damn it as far as the rest of the country is concerned. Like
any other despised minority, Southerners kick against being stereotyped and demeaned. The kind of faith on display in the football prayer movement is their most well-publicized brand of religion--loud, often combative, and sometimes fiercely simple-minded. It is one of the few ways they can still be heard. I'm not saying the football prayer movement will be contained in the South. I bet it's going to spread at least to the Midwest and maybe the West. But the people who stand up and pray are going to be a lot like the Southerners. They're folks who feel as though they have a pretty good handle on what's moral and right, and they're pretty darn tired of having a culture they don't approve of dictate what they can do. The football prayer movement is about religion in much the same way that the conflict in Northern Ireland is about whether you're Protestant or Catholic. In the South and in Northern Ireland, religion runs deep. But the conflict is about something even deeper. It's about identity. Any time one culture tells another that it must give up the rituals and customs that define it, there's going to be a fight. In the streets. Or in the courts. Or in the bleachers.
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